Tuesday 5 December 2017

On a Thousand Walls #9: Dead Man's Shoes (2004)

(Most of my film posts contain spoilers. This one contains complete ruiners. You have been warned.)

Film genres are an arbitrary thing; their balkanisation isn't as intuitive as we think it is, and every so often a film comes along that proves how silly they are. Get Out has already won an award for Best Comedic Performance (this year's MTV awards, for LilRel Howery) and already people are struggling to categorise it – is it a horror, a thriller, a vicious social satire?

Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes goes even beyond this: could it be a kitchen sink drama, Ken Loach-style? Is it a psychological revenge thriller? A slasher horror? It doesn't just defy these categories, it actively leans in to them. It's a haunting, gut-churning watch, tense and funny and desperately sad.
It's Anthony's brother.
Richard (voice over): You'll forgive them. You'll forgive them and allow them into heaven. I can't live with that.
Richard (Paddy Considine) comes back to his Midlands hometown, his developmentally disabled brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) in tow. They hole up in a derelict just out of town. It becomes apparent that Richard is out for revenge. In a series of black and white flashback, we see a group of small-time provincial criminals, dealers engaging on a campaign of increasingly extreme abuse targeted on Anthony. They imprisoned him, humiliated him, brutalised him, and even forced a woman to rape him.

Richard's revenge campaign begins with intimidation; at times, it's even comical. Richard finds and confronts Herbie (Stuart Wolfenden), and later will turn up at his door in a gasmask.

He raids houses in the space of minutes, scrawling obscure slogans on walls and stealing gear. He sneaks into the homes of Anthony's tormentors and paints their faces and clothes.

And from the moment Herbie tells the others who their pursuer is, everyone goes cold inside. You can see it. It's Anthony's brother. I think it's Anthony's brother, Richard. And faces pale, eyes turn inward. They are all terrified.
You're not afraid of me, are you?
Sonny (Gary Stretch), who's the nearest thing to a leader, a tall, coiled spring of a man, always a split second away from acts of brutal violence, faces off Richard on the street. Richard is entirely straight, no deception, no hiding of the truth. Yes, he did it. Yes he's going to get them all. Yes, he's staying at the farm. Richard, as played by Paddy Considine, is a troubling figure, his kind, open features a mask, his eyes wide and staring, his hair and beard with the growth that comes when you just don't bother to shave or have it cut, like a soldier gone to seed. Which he is. There's something very wrong with him. He doesn't pretend anything. There's a real sense he doesn't have it in him.

Sonny is terrified of him. And then Richard efficiently picks them off one by one, tormenting them, mocking them.
Go on, Al.
Sonny, Herbie and the others are no less pathetic. They drive around bundled in an ancient, clapped out 2CV with comical stickers. They lark around. They take the piss. They're just guys, having a laugh, and they're not monsters, none of them are, not even Sonny, who's the most dangerous and unrepentant of them, but still just a thug. They're just thoughtless, and stupid, and cruel, and small. And Richard takes his time killing the men, one by one. And as he does so, he gives them a taste of what they did to Anthony. He makes them incapable of resisting him (he puts the gear he stole into the kettle while they're making the tea), and he makes them dance, and he humiliates them and mocks them. And kills them.

And before he does for Herbie, the last of them, he finds out what happened to Mark (Paul Hurstfield). Mark has been apart from the others, isn't part of the gang anymore. He has abandoned the life of a small time drug dealer for a family, for a safe job. A good, ordinary life. And what happened to Anthony is a long standing guilt for him, and Richard the nemesis he's been waiting for. The others were afraid of the consequences of what they did. Mark is the one who profoundly regrets it. They feared revenge. He fears justice. He knows what his part in Anthony's fate was: he didn't stop it. None of the others are humane enough to approach what happened, or to admit to their guilt.

And as we explore Mark's guilt, we come to the big rug pull of the film, the part where it changes from one sort of film into another: Shane Meadows goes hard with the trademark style of social realist cinema, all shaky hand held camera, improvised dialogue, run-down suburban locations. And then he doesn't, he pulls the rug.
You were supposed to be a monster.
As Mark tearfully explains to his wife what happened to Anthony, it's like a confession, and it's not only his confession to the wife who will consign him to the sofa, probably permanently, it's the confession of the film to us. It comes clean. It exorcises the heart of the narrative. Because Anthony died years ago. These men were responsible for his death. They didn't mean him to die, but his dying was their fault. Anthony's appearances, although entirely naturalistic, are a haunting. Either literally or psychologically, Anthony has been haunting Richard.

The music changes. Where once the soundtrack was almost entirely made of guitar-led acoustic music from the likes of Calexico, Smog and Adem, it gives way to Arvo Pärt's De Profundis, and then to ambient dischord. These are signifiers that it's a different sort of film. And that it always was. The social realist framework isn't invalidated by this. It becomes the gateway through which we pass to enter a much stranger film. 
I didn't hold your hand. I don't need to.
The landscape of suburban squats and derelict farms becomes a haunted landscape. It doesn't actually matter if Anthony is a real ghost or a memory. All hauntings are memories. All these places where the film is set are bound with the ghosts of the past, and whether they're literal or figurative is irrelevant. This is lived-in country, and where people have lived, at some point people have died. And the loss of people we love scars us. Going home when there isn't any home left to go to can consume us. Because all that we find when we get there are ghosts. A ghost home, a ghost family.
Richard: You. You were supposed to be a monster.
Richard in the end recognises that he's got nothing remaining for him other than either to keep doing horrible things, or sentence his final victim to a worse fate than anything the others faced: to live with it. And Richard can't. He's done terrible carnage. But he's done here.

Sometimes you can't go home.